Health IT Vendor Selection Tips

October 19, 2012

To ensure you're selecting the right health IT vendor for your practice, ask yourself these nine questions.

Properly vetting your next health IT vendor can save you from a multitude of problems - from costly delays, to unresponsive customer service, to failed implementations.

To ensure you're selecting the right vendor for your practice, ask yourself these nine questions prior to making your final decision.

1. Will we get the face-to-face time we need?

For large-scale projects, you're going to want some face-to-face time with the vendor. But keep in mind that that can translate to higher costs.

Think about your practice's needs, the capabilities of your staff members, and the amount of time your point person will have to allot to the project. Also, consider how often you will want the vendor to come to practice meetings, how much training your staff will need, etc.

Then, make sure that all the face-to-face time you determine you need is included in the vendor's contract, says nonpracticing internal medicine physician Jeffrey Hertzberg, president of Medformatics, Inc., a Minneapolis-based consulting firm.

"Once you have a contract and you have an implementation begun, if you realize that you would like your vendor [to come into the practice] monthly or quarterly for a meeting and you haven't put that in the contract in advance, you can't get that to happen without spending more," he says.

2. Have we spoken with enough people?

Ensure you have a firm handle on the individuals on the vendor's side of things who will be managing your project, helping you when issues arise, etc.

"This is somewhat challenging in that oftentimes the people that will be selling you the goods and services are not necessarily the people that you will interact with on an ongoing basis," says health IT consultant Bruce Kleaveland. "I do think you can get some indication of what the interaction will be like based on your interaction with the sales representative. I think that's very, very important because ultimately the sales representative should be an advocate for you within the company."

But try to get "beyond the salesperson," says Laura Jantos, principal at ECG Management Consultants, a Seattle-based healthcare consulting firm. "You need to really understand the vendor's corporate culture, and you'll get more information about that by meeting with a variety of people." That includes talking with folks in charge of implementation, research and development, and product strategy, she says.

3. Who will we be working most closely with?

One of the biggest problems for practices occurs when they are assigned a vendor point of contact that lacks experience, says Laurie O'Brien, vice president of implementation for Physicians EHR, a Raleigh, N.C.-based consulting firm.

"If there's a practice that is a specialty group such as oncology, they really want somebody from that vendor that knows about oncology at least somewhat," she says.

Prior to selecting a vendor, ask to review the resume and experience of the point person who will be communicating with you and/or managing your process. Assess how long the individual has been with the company, where they were before joining the company, and if they have any clinical background, says O'Brien.

4. What do other practices say?

In addition to speaking to key point people on the vendor's side of things, also request some contacts for practices like yours (i.e., similar size and specialty) that the vendor is currently working with.

Kleaveland says contacting these practices is the best way to determine whether the vendor will be the right fit for you.

Here are a few key questions he suggests asking:

• What's it like to do business with the vendor?
• Is it responsive?
• Is it friendly?
• Is it helpful?
• Does it care about your success?

These conversations with other practices also present an opportunity to learn valuable information, such as where the practice encountered pitfalls and problems with the vendor, how problems were handled, and who to establish relationships with, says Jantos.

5. Will the vendor satisfy all of our requirements?

Don't just listen to everything the vendor says it will provide you. Instead, compile your own list of requirements you need in a vendor.

"Try to articulate those as clearly as you can, and then, when you interact with the vendor, make sure you continue to describe those, and talk to them about their priorities and consider whether or not those align," says Jantos. "You'll get a sense of whether or not the vendor's really hearing you."

This is especially critical when selecting an EHR vendor, says nonpracticing internist Karen Bell, chair of the Certification Commission for Health Information Technology. The EHR needs to do much more than equip you with the tools to attest to meaningful use, she points out.
For instance, you want the EHR to assist you with patient care, managing patient populations, etc. "Once you know what you need and want, picking a good vendor becomes a lot easier," says Bell.

6. Will the vendor make necessary upgrades quickly?

When assembling your list of requirements needed in a vendor, stipulate that the vendor must satisfy your needs as the market changes.

For instance, with EHRs, vendors will need to upgrade their systems to comply with Stage 2 of meaningful use.

If you're selecting a vendor that will need to make upgrades to its system so that your practice can participate in certain programs, make sure your vendor contract states that the vendor will do so in a timely manner, says Bell.

"If it's in the contract that within 'x' amount of weeks of a certification program coming available ... that the product will be certified to those specs, that makes a huge difference," she says. "Vendor relationships are great, but what keeps them great is contractual understanding."

7. Have we tried out the software?

Make sure you test the product prior to selecting a vendor, says Bell, noting it tends to look a lot easier when the vendor salesperson is demonstrating how to use the product.

"The practice should be the one that is actually trying to go through some of the approaches that they would be using in terms of patient care, or research, or whatever else that they're doing," she says.

8. What is the vendor's track record?

When selecting a vendor review its track record. "The worst case scenario is you go with a vendor, it seems to have a product you're happy with, and it's not sustainable," says Bell.

Also with EHR vendors, make sure a portability clause is in place within the contract, meaning that the vendor guarantees you will be able to extract all of your data and move it somewhere else, if necessary, she says.

9. Do we have a solid contract?

It's crucial to thoroughly review the contract prior to signing it to ensure that all of your needs and concerns are addressed within it, says Jantos.

"Don't just sign on the dotted line with the vendor on a standard contract, even though the vendor's going to say this is standard and everybody signs the same thing," she says. "You can take the time to really outline what the relationship needs to look like."